Friday, September 16, 2005

Laws of the Spirit

Early in the 20th century, Fr Basil Maturin undertook a noble but near impossible task: He tried to figure out what St Paul was saying in the inscrutable seventh chapter of the Letter to the Romans. Actually, he didn’t produce a word-by-word commentary (not that I know of, anyway), but rather made some sense of the spiritual laws of which the Apostle spoke. The quotes from him are taken from his excellent little book, Christian Self-Mastery.

Following on what I said yesterday on the formation of character, a basic understanding of how these laws work can be helpful. There are four of them: the “law of the members,” the “law of sin,” the “law of the mind,” and the “law of the Spirit of Life” (this last one actually appears at the beginning of chapter 8, but Paul didn’t divide his own work into chapters; that was done by editors centuries later). The first two laws are related, as are the second two.

The law of the members is at work in our acts and desires that are not in themselves sinful, but that end up preparing the way to sin. The very lack of discipline evident in our indulgence in them is a sign that sin is not far away. “The man who determines that he will not do what is positively wrong, but will do everything else he wishes, will find that, in the long run, he cannot stop short of actual sin.” Yield to the law of the members, to “harmless” acts of self-indulgence or to habitually taking the path of least resistance, and you will soon be captive to the law of sin.

The law of sin brings the destruction of moral and spiritual life. Once you pave the way for sin by lack of discipline in regard to things in which you may tend to pamper yourself or prefer your own way to making a sacrifice for another, then the law of sin gains ascendancy and ultimately brings spiritual death. “Once admitted and indulged, sin lives, grows, and develops by its own law. Its growth is like that of an organism that feeds on the very life of the soul, absorbing its strength… We cannot bargain with it and say it shall go so far and no farther.” Once sin becomes habitual, we have to make extraordinary and painful efforts to uproot it. The idea is to discipline ourselves in the “neutral” things, things that may not be evil in themselves but have a real potential to take us there if we continue in them. Learning how to say no in small matters will strengthen us to say no in large ones. Faithful in little, faithful in much.

On the other hand, the “law of the mind” is like the counterpart to the law of the members. Living by the law of the mind is a preparation for living by the law of the Spirit of Life, just as living under the law of the members sets us up for living under the law of sin. The law of the mind acts in our reason and conscience: “to lift up the soul to all that is best in it.” It leads us to do what is right, encourages us to discipline ourselves in things that lead to sin. But because the law of the members (and perhaps also the law of sin) are simultaneously at work in us, the law of the mind is not always successful in helping us to see and do what is right and pleasing to God. But it does point us to the One who can liberate us from sin.

With the help of grace, the law of the mind leads us to choose the way of Christ, whose Spirit then brings us under his own law. “Conscience is, as it were, a valve through which the stream of grace flowing forth from the Spirit of God floods the soul… if conscience is open, the stream rushes forth in a mighty torrent, refreshing, invigorating, and uplifting all the powers of the soul.” Then we can cry out with St Paul: “The law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2). This liberation, however, must be diligently maintained, for those other laws still have potential to regain power if our vigilance falters.

The battle doesn’t begin with the law of sin and the law of the Spirit. It begins in the little grey areas, with the law of the members and the law of the mind. I will conclude with an extended quote that puts the struggle in perspective: “Thus, the great moral battle, whether the soul is to be ruled by sin or by the Spirit of Life, depends upon the victory of the law of the members or the law of the mind. About the trifling acts of self-indulgence or self-will against which conscience so vehemently protests, from the first waking in the morning when the law of the members cries, ‘Rest a little longer,’ and the law of the mind cries, ‘Arise and prepare for the work of the day,’ on through every hour, almost every moment of the day, the tide of battle ebbs and flows. And behind these two combatants, whose conflict is over things so trifling that they scarcely seem to have any moral value at all, stand the two mighty powers of life and death, of sin and righteousness, awaiting the issue. This, therefore, is the seat and center of self-discipline…”